Plymouth United Church of Christ

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Sermon, Year B, Proper 22, October 7, 2012, World Communion Sunday
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Job 1:1, 2:1-10 and Mark 10:2-16

“Do you care enough about me to listen to my story?”

It’s a question asked in these texts, in Job and Mark. We will read more from the book of Job in the coming weeks, and I will speak more about then. But I will say now that the Book of Job is partly asking this question; or at least, Job is asking this question, “Do you care enough about me to listen to my story?” It also holds in tension, as much of the Bible does, multiple truths at the same time. Including some that would seem to be in conflict, and some that are in conflict. It holds up the truths that being faithful leads to reward and blessings, but also the truth that being faithful leads to suffering. And the truth that God is good, but also the truth that God is kind of a jerk here for making Job suffer just to win a wager.

And all of this tension and these truths are wrapped in a narrative framework in which neither Job’s friends nor his wife ever care enough, really, to listen to his story. They only offer advice. And he doesn’t want to be told what’s wrong and how to fix it. He knows what’s wrong. That is not what Job is looking for. And it is not what the book is looking to answer. I think the book is very much about living in the ambiguity because there are few, if any, good answers to complex questions. Lessons that faith is partly to live in the ambiguity and in that tension.

Much as the homeless and others that we’re serving in our street ministry aren’t looking for us to sweep in and save them with our truth: telling them where they went wrong, or how they ought to live or what they need to do to be the people we think they ought to be. They are not a problem to be fixed. Homelessness is a problem to be fixed. Poverty is a problem to be fixed. But the homeless and the poor are not a problem. They’re people. And they are people who have stories. We’re there to help. To ask, “Are you hungry?” and to care enough to listen to their story, because they’re human beings.

This last week you probably saw in the news a big story about Jennifer Livingston, one of the anchors down at WKBT in LaCrosse. She had receved an email from a man she doesn’t know, but he did at least have the integrity to leave his name and an email address. He sent her this email saying to her that she’s fat, obese, and not a good role model for girls. Which is insulting enough as it is, but it also is really stripping her of her womanhood. It is saying that her only role as a female is to be a proper body image that young girls should aspire to be. Which is not good. Not good. It completely discounts her as a role model as a professional, educated person who has succeeded and who is making it in the world. She is reduced to a body.

She responded to the man on-air on TV, and said, “You don’t even know me.” She could have said, “You don’t even care enough to know my story and yet you’re going to fix me?” She’s a human being, and not a body. A person, not an object. There happened to be later in the week that some more truth in the story came out. There has been some reconciliation. The gentleman that wrote the letter has admitted that he has always had a struggle with his weight. He is now thin, but only by an awful lot of effort. Now that they have shared some story, they can go forward, and maybe something good can come out of that.

Jesus is saying a similar thing to his questioners as well. They ask him about divorce. What is legal? They are, in a sense, ignoring the humanity here. Ignoring the personhood. Reducing it down to a law. He responds, basically, says that from a legal standpoint, if you really want to get legal about it, what you allow is sinful. You’re not legalistic enough. You’re not taking to an enough of an extreme. Moses allowed for divorce because you are hard-hearted. Let’s go back to the beginning, he says. Divorce in Jesus’ time was a purely one-sided thing. Only the men could divorce. The women had no recourse for asking for one. But the men could just do it. And when the man decided to divorce the woman, she’s just gone. She gets nothing. Left on her own. Maybe, hopefully, her family will help out, maybe not.

Then Jesus says, “Let’s go all the way back. Back to Eden, back in the place where God’s intent was how life happened. There was mutuality. There was holy respect for one another. We lived as one.” He says, “This question about divorce isn’t the right question. The question is, how do we live in God’s kingdom?” which is about compassion, mercy, love. People aren’t an object to be conformed to some legalistic standards without any regard for their story, or for their circumstances. It’s not a “one rule fits all” kind of world.

So, Jesus says (offers) these competing truths. Divorce is bad. It is not something to be desired. And it is also bad because it’s so easy for the man and so devastating for the woman. With the disciples, he calls it adultery to divorce and remarry. Note he also includes that if the woman divorces her husband. Why would he say that? I think he’s saying, “If we’re going to have it, let’s at least have it be equally accessible to both parties.” He is suggesting that women ought to have that right. So there is that: divorce is bad or at least not to be desired. But there is also the truth that he forgives the woman who is accused of adultery. And the woman at the well, who was married multiple times, he neither forgives nor condemns her. He accepts her as she is. As the person that she is. It doesn’t even really come up.

That’s that part about being childlike that he goes into at the end of our passage. Which is to say, forget the legalism, just accept the grace and love. Accept it in awe and wonder and live in holy joy with God. So divorce: maybe not how it should be, but not all marriages are made in heaven. Some are born in hell and they need to end, they are not healthy. It is not good for people to be in unhealthy situations. And above all of that is God’s grace. Above everything.

And we are today at World Communion Sunday, where churches all over the world are celebrating communion. Which is a good thing, but we’re not doing it together. It is also a day to remind us of our brokenness, that the church is divided. Much of that division over competing truth claims.

Yesterday I had the privilege to be at my cousin’s wedding at st. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Sparta. It was a full mass, so they celebrated Eucharist. But as they got into the Eucharist part, the priest reminded us that it was only for Catholics. The rest of us may not receive it. And I thought, here we are at a wedding, the joining of two people in love, and the joining of two families in love. Then after this couple has been joined, we get to the Eucharist and the priest says to the congregation, “But I remind you that we are divorced, and I have a restraining order against some of you that you cannot come to the table.”

So I sat while they were having Eucharist and I contemplated that this is not what I would have for the Church. And I think not what Jesus would have for the Church. But I also contemplated that this is happening on World Communion Sunday weekend. And I thought, at least, maybe, on this weekend can’t we all just come to the table together. At least one time out of the year.

And I thought that not only am I being denied a spot at the table, I can’t go up and receive Communion, but in less than 24 hours I am going to be with my congregation presiding at the table. If I can do it here, why can’t I even eat there. And it’s the same table. I think it’s the same table. And it is unfortunate, and I have to put some onus on the Catholics here, and I’m not going on an anti-Catholic diatribe here. It’s just that is where I was yesterday, and it’s on my mind. I have to put the onus on the Catholics here because they are unwilling to listen to my story. That we are Christians. We have different thoughts about what that means, but we are all Christians, and we all ought to be able to at least go to the table together even though our understanding is different. They make the claim their truth is the only truth, and that kind of scares me. And frustrates me. And it’s not just Catholics, we all do this. I’m not picking on them, it’s just where I was yesterday. We all do it in one way or another. All denominations have their own claims, their own truth claims. Even we in the UCC, we have a very long tradition of being ecumenical and working with people. We still have our issues sometimes when others ask us to join them in something, and we look and say “That church isn’t accepting of gays and lesbians so maybe we shouldn’t work with them.” We also have our blindspots.

But it bugs me that the one place Christianity is particularly divided is at the table. We get so legalistic. We don’t here at Plymouth because we have an open table, and thank God for that. Anyone can come to the table.

But the picture that I see is one like Jesus in this story. That as people come to the table, they are asked, “What is your understanding of communion?” Do we want a dentist, that when we’re ready to get some needed healthcare, the dentist asks us first, “What is your understanding of the theory and practice of western dentistry? I want to make sure you have it correct before I work on you.” As though that is going to have some effect on how well it works. No. Jesus is saying, “Come to the kingdom like a child. With eyes wide open and willing to accept.”

And instead of asking someone when they come to the table, “What is your understanding?”, which is like saying, “You can’t come to the table unless you understand as I do. You have to prove your truth matches mine first.” That’s the wrong frame to put it in. It’s a good question for small groups or Bible studies, or when you are talking to people. But as a conversation, but not as a test. Jesus says to the Pharisees, it’s not about divorce and legalism, it’s much bigger than that. Because life, and faith, are messy, and real, and ambiguous, and confusing, and full of competing truths that are all equally true in many ways. We ought to be able to live in that tension, that this ritual of eating at the table means so many different things to different people. Catholics are right. We’re right. Methodists are right, the Orthodox are right, the Coptics are right. All are coming at something, a truth, that none of us can have all of, so why not at least work together. And then it’s not up to us to defend the table and ask those who come “What is your purpose?” or “Are you fit?” or “Do you have the right understanding?” Because we are in a position of power, and it’s an abuse of that power. I would say that it is up to us who are already here not to ask questions, but to be the ones who get questioned by those who would come.

Who might very well be asking, “Do you care enough about me to listen to my story? I’m hungry. And I want to be fed.” Then we will be living like we’re in God’s Kingdom, where we already are. Where we already are. Amen.

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Plymouth United Church of Christ
2010 Moholt Drive
Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 54703

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